Monday, June 18, 2018

Everything for the Song

Years ago, Jean Nichols published a short poem in an issue of Saturday Evening Post that was so true that it stuck with me: “Why couldn’t I have known it all along? Nothing for the singer, everything for the song.” That little epigram is another way of saying that artists of any stripe are not as important as the works they produce. That sentiment played right into my approach to literary analysis known as the New Criticism, a system developed by the Southern Agrarians in 1939. Even though the methodology is not exactly new, it has become a venerable approach to studying literary works without regard to the author’s biography. New Criticism looks at the work itself in all its intricacy, analyzing how the parts work together to form the transference of artistic perceptions.

So, because of that analytical bent, I did not put much stock in the life of William Faulkner, though I published a lot of scholarly writings about his novels after having produced my doctoral dissertation about his work. But the life of the Mississippi genius is fascinating to say the least.

During my career, I made friends with Jimmy Faulkner, William’s nephew who lived with his famous uncle. Jimmy related a lot of anecdotes about the writer’s life that are interesting in themselves, though they have little bearing on the novels. I want to relate one of Jimmy’s stories here that was affirmed by Hollywood director Howard Hawks on a biographical film on PBS entitled A Life on Paper.

Hawks read a Faulkner short story in a magazine and thought it would be the foundation of a good movie. He wrote Faulkner there in Mississippi and sent him a plane ticket, explaining that he was interested in making the film. Hawks said a week or so later, his doorbell rang there in Beverly Hills. When he opened it, he found a little man smoking a big pipe who said in treble, I’m William Faulkner. Hawks responded by saying, “I’m Howard Hawks.” Faulkner replied, “I read it on the check.”

After they were comfortably seated in the den, Hawks said he himself did all the talking and was irritated that Faulkner kept silent. After 45 minutes, Faulkner got up to leave. “Where are you going,” Hawks asked. “Well, you wanted me to write it didn’t you?” Hawks said yes but that he would like to get to know him a little bit and offered him a drink. That was a mistake, because he got to know the author and his propensity for intoxication all too well. They spent three days on a tear. But a few days later, Hawks said, Faulkner showed up at his door with a perfect film script and Faulkner became a screen writer for a long season.

Hawks said later he took Faulkner and Clark Gable hunting. Gable asked Faulkner what living writers he would recommend for him to read. Faulkner said, “John Dos Passos, Thomas Mann and me.” Gable said, “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, do you write?” Faulkner replied, “Yes, Mr. Gable, what do you do?”

Nothing for the singer. Everything for the song.

Monday, June 11, 2018

How Power Moves

Power in a “divine right” monarchy supposedly comes down from God to the king or queen, then down to the royal family, then down through the “peerage” to the courtiers, then down to the commoners. If there is anything amiss with royalty on any level, king, queen, prince, princess, it leaks down to the people. When something is rotten in the state of Denmark, you can smell it in the royal court. According to Shakespeare, it’s like putting compost on an un-weeded garden.

On the other hand, power in a democracy or republican form of government supposedly comes up from the people who exercise their power to vote their leaders into office. There is an assumption, then, that if anything is amiss with the voting public, it travels up to the highest levels. Thus, when anyone condemns a leader, he or she is condemning large portions of the voting public that put the leader there and the condemnation sounds and feels like hate for one’s country to some.

Shakespeare depicted power coming down in a monarchy in his most famous play, Hamlet. The old king is poisoned by his brother Claudius, whose motivation is usurpation of the kingship and the claiming of his brother’s wife, Gertrude, as his own. As he says, “my sometime sister[-in-law] but now my queen.” The bard thematically shows that poison in high places in such a kingdom leaks and flows down, contaminating everything and everyone it touches. There are corpses galore on the stage in the last act, all victims of poison.

The phenomenon of power moving up from the people in the USA is a little more complex, especially when the country is seriously divided politically. In my lifetime, I have witnessed the proverbial pendulum swinging, sometimes radically, from election to election. Sometimes those who want to conserve a tried and familiar course, you know, conservatives, prevail. At other times, those who want to fundamentally change the country to something different from the past come out on top. This intermittency is positive in some ways but divisive in others. Factions can become so enamored of their own point of view that they see no merit at all in any other.

Just as the poison of corruption moves down in a monarchy, the poison of divisiveness moves up in a democracy and both conditions are tragic. There was no antidote for the poison in Hamlet. Old Claudius could not un-pour the poison from the old king’s ear. The deed was done. However, there could be an antidote for the poison of divisiveness in our country: recognizing and respecting other points of view.

I know we cannot respect any opinion that wants the destruction of our country, but we can respect and honor other well-meaning ideas for the improvement of our lives as Americans. I am resolved to give reason and respect a chance. Those who advocate love are destined to bring about change much more felicitously than those who condemn.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Variations on Tradition

The decorum of historic practice was on full display when the Archbishop bound Harry and Meghan’s arms together with his stole and proclaimed, “What God hath joined together let not man put asunder.” That special moment was richly nostalgic for my wife and me because our vows in an Episcopal church more than a half-century ago came from the same Book of Common Prayer. And when the rector bound our arms at the culmination of the ceremony while repeating that venerable admonition, we both knew in the deepest part of our hearts that we were bound together for life. And we were glad.

The royal wedding stimulated thoughts for many of us about the great range and mixture of wedding practices in contemporary America. Even though there is a common thread and sequence of happenings in nuptial celebrations, many different “spins” on the traditional ceremony are manifested.

For example, some in our state follow the unusually large Duggar family on television as the 19 children one-by-one develop their own quaint rules for courting, engagement and marriage. The church where the weddings take place has radically drifted from ecclesiastical roots. Yet, like most evangelical churches, vestiges of historic practice have remained. It seems that such churches constantly reinvent themselves, allowing concepts of ancient biblical practice to trump “traditions of men.” And the wedding gets reinvented as well.

Such was the case in Joseph Duggar’s ceremony. One may contrast Joseph’s lip-quivering and tearful joy at the sight of his bride coming down the aisle with Harry’s stiff upper lip grin as Meghan approached. The simple exchange of rings there in St. George’s Cathedral had its counterpart in one of Joseph’s groomsmen rappeling from the balcony to deliver the ring. The congregants in the north Arkansas congregation breathlessly awaited the first kiss there at the altar. Harry and Meghan saved the smacker, certainly not the first, for display for the larger crowd of commoners outside.

In light of this, we can make an analogy of wedding practices as apartments in a long hallway of commonality. Each apartment is for cultural and individual preferences but in the common hallway, we have elegant dress (even if it is cowboy themed), vows (even if individualized by the betrothed), exchange of rings (even if the groomsman rappels), etc. In our culture, there is also the all-important signing of the legal papers by the officiant.

We can see the same phenomenon of variations on tradition at work in other venues as well. As a life-long academic with experiences in many colleges, I have seen commencement ceremonies in the same light. At Palm Beach Atlantic University, for example, we practiced all the bells and whistles of historic processions, complete with a menacing mace (ours was beautiful, bejeweled and quite heavy), banners for each of the five colleges, heavy metal neck pendants for the president, provost and even full professors. Despite all that decorum, however, students could not restrain themselves from flip-flops, printed slogans on their mortar boards and sometimes little Irish jigs upon receiving their diplomas.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Send me a Letter

Many if not most popular songs of my teen years were quite meaningless. Bebop a lou la. You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog. Tutti fruiti, all rooti. Saw Aunt Sally comin’ and ducked back in the alley. One for the money, two for the show, three to make ready, now, go cat go. Stay off of my blue suede shoes. You know what I mean. Many of the verses that did make sense and had at least some meaning come across as archaic today. For example, a lovely tune called “Little Things Mean a Lot” had the following heartfelt sentiment: “You send me a line a day when you are far away.” That means the loved one wrote postcards or jotted letters to the beloved when away on a trip.

I remember being glad for postcards and letters from friends and acquaintances. The mailperson was a very welcome visitor to our neighborhood because we looked forward to communication from the significant people in our lives. And, I remember the joy of receiving mail when I was serving overseas and the necessity I felt for writing letters home to family and friends. It was a reciprocal activity.

Is it that same joy in receiving and sending friendly communications that compels many of us to focus on our cell phones? I think it is, though with social media we find ourselves fascinated with notes from virtual strangers or people we do not know very well. The little device with its world of possibilities trumps interpersonal verbal communication in restaurants, in elevators, at public gatherings and even, I have noticed, at church. If we think about it, we would probably prefer a line a day when a friend is far away to the barrage of meaningless verbiage we often follow on our phones.

The wise old man once told me he proclaims a social media fast one day a week. He said the abstinence did not have to be on the same day every week, but for at least 24 hours a week he does not consult any electronic media at all. He feels he is a better person for it. He turns his phone off. Further, occasionally I receive a three- or four- page letter from him full of ideas stimulated by his reading. He reads a journal called Psychohistory; he reads Bergson in French; he studies contemporary issues in comparative religion. When I receive such an epistle, my head reels for days—he is like a logic compacter and it reconstitutes only with great turbulence in my gray matter.

But, back to my point. I will not say that contemporary written communication is bad—far from it. We should be glad people are exchanging ideas, however meager and ambiguous they may be. Obviously, the place to communicate a deeper awareness of being alive on the planet is in a longer form than a text message in more careful language. Letter writing is an art form. I sincerely hope we do not let it atrophy.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Fun at Work

“That boy can’t hit a nail,” Pop often proclaimed to the rest of the family about me. As a master carpenter, the only way he judged other people was by their skill, or lack of it, in using the tools of his trade. So, I decided early in life that I would seek means of employment that did not include hammers, handsaws and plumb-bobs. I had no room in my workshop for anything but metaphors, syntax and all the accouterments of linguistic prowess, that is, I studied English and became a professor of it.

But, like Pop, I had no way of judging people but by their use of language and, as a grader of freshman themes, I did a lot of judging. When I assigned the rare grade of “A” to a college paper, it was for an interesting and thoughtful effort that had no grammatical or spelling problems. A “B” essay was highly literate and not dull with a good solid point. The grade of “C” denoted that the writing was not exactly blah, but it had some language difficulties and some stumbling blocks concerning logic. “You better get with it,” is what a “D” meant and I don’t think I have to explain an “F.”

I notice that English teachers, prone as we are to judge linguistic skills, like to vent frustrations and give advice about usage on social media. They rail against using synonyms for each other as in “their, they’re, there.” They go ballistic over “its” and “it’s.” And the wrong use of “Mary and I” or “Mary and me” induces righteous indignation. I, even I, your humble correspondent, have admonished my social media connections to avoid words and phrases such as “amazing,” “jaw-dropping,” “tremendous” and “totally.” I just wish our governmental leaders, who are too often called upon to orate, would avoid clich├ęs, jargon and stream-of-consciousness utterances. What in the world does “tremendous” mean, really?

Robert Frost portrays a perfect example of judging others based upon their skills in his famous poem, “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” He describes a fellow who goes to his cabin for relaxation. He likes to split wood, though his is not very good at it. Two tramps, apparently unemployed lumberjacks, come up out of the woods to watch him chop. Frost observes. “Except as a man handles an axe, they had no way of knowing a fool.” In other words, without saying so, they wanted this amateur’s job for pay—and they get it. Frost concludes the poem with a very wise saying: “My object in living is to unite my avocation with my vocation as my two eyes make one in sight.”

He wanted to do for a living what he did for fun. Not many people manage that. Institutions often take all the fun out of work by trying to superimpose rules and frameworks that do not really apply to the enterprise at hand. So, figure out ways to enjoy the work you do, even with the much too common impediment of mindless oversight.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Building Vocabulary

The suave English professor led with his chin, his eyes vaguely fixed somewhere skyward. Wherever his chin pointed, his feet followed somewhat purposefully. Such a demeanor disallowed greetings or conversations as he made his way across campus to lunch or to the library or to the fountain where he often assumed a contemplative pose on a concrete bench, smoking a long cigarette, which he held in the European fashion, between thumb and forefinger, palm up.

He was tough in graduate seminars, unrelentingly demanding of accurate expression and clarity of thought. When a student gave a report, he might interrupt with a statement such as, “Will you get on with it, please. I’m bored to tears.” In discussions that became hot and argumentative, he would say things like, “As a graduate student, you must ponder the possibility that you may be mistaken.” He seemed somewhat nasty, but I chose him to direct my master’s thesis anyway. I wanted to do it on Restoration Drama, and in that field at that university, he was the only dude.

I had considered myself as a good writer as an undergraduate, but he was very hard on my thesis. Based on his pointed criticism, I rewrote chapters one and two thrice and chapter four twice. By the time I got to the next-to-last chapter, I was frustrated. I hated to see my pages looking as if a chicken had been dipped in red ink and turned loose upon them. So, I went to his office, a spacious academic study atop the oldest building on campus. His secretary was an ancient lady who could have easily passed for a 1930’s telephone operator, in coiffure, in dress and in her perpetually distracted manner. I told her I wanted to see the professor and she ignored me. I said it again louder.

She said crankily, “I heard you. Go on in.”

I entered the smoke-filled vortex of books and papers at the center of which was my man. “Sir, I got this chapter back and it seems as if I am not making stylistic progress. Do you have any overall suggestions that may help?”

“Mr. Ford, I suggest you write after the manner of R. B. McKerrow.” The conversation was over. I went to the library and found one single, solitary pamphlet by that author, bug-stained and crumbling, which was a godsend. McKerrow recommended writing clearly, as if to someone with less intelligence than one’s own. He further suggested headings and subheadings for a work of the magnitude of a thesis. Finally, he said one should never lose the reader; in other words, edit your own work so that it is not hard to follow.

I applied what I learned to the next-to-last chapter and took it to him. It came back with very little red ink and a comment, “This is much improved.” When I went to see him about the chapter, he said, “This is the penultimate, is it not?” I replied, “No, I have one more.” Then, privately, I looked up “penultimate” to learn that it means next-to-last. I slapped my forehead.

Monday, October 16, 2017

An Inaccurate List



When Capt. John Smith wrote home about his experiences in the New World, he mentioned that the natives ate “a small dog called a raccoon.” Apparently, the little masked animal was unfamiliar to the Englishman and he mistook it for a dog. In Algonquian, the animal is called “aroughcun” and that sounded like “raccoon” to Capt. Smith. The raccoon either did not inhabit the British Isles or they were extremely rare.

Raccoons were apparently quite rare as well in Southwest Arkansas early in the 20th Century. An elderly alderman named Thurston on the Washington, Ark. city council said he had never seen one as a boy, even though he and his brother trapped all the time. They would provide meat for the family and neighbors, cure the skins and send them to a place in St. Louis, along with a list on notebook paper of what they were sending. Not many days later, they would receive a check in the mail from the fur company up there. He said earning money that way was better than a paper route.

They sold some of the meat to a Mrs. Black, who ran a local restaurant. One winter day, she told Thurston and his brother that if they ever trapped a raccoon, she would give them a quarter for the meat. (Most carcasses went for a dime). She said her customers had been asking for raccoon.

Well, one night in the wee small hours, the brothers heard the dogs cut loose down in the bottoms below their house. Their father got out of bed, loaded his double-barrel 20 and said, “I got to go shut them dogs up. If I don’t shoot whatever it is they got treed down in yonder, ain’t none of us going to get any sleep.” Soon, the brothers heard both barrels go off and their father came trudging back. They heard him throw something in a box on the back porch where they kept game away from the dogs. He came by their room and said, “Boys, there’s a coon in the box y’all can have for the hide.”

At daybreak, they skinned the animal, took the meat to Mrs. Black, received their quarter and cured the hide. They included that skin in a bundle they sent to St. Louis and entered it on the notebook paper list: two possums, five squirrels, one coon. Soon they got a larger-than-expected check back in the mail along with a letter, part of which stated, “Boys, there was no raccoon hide in your recent shipment. There were two opossums, five squirrels and one fox.”

They never told Mrs. Black, because she bragged that her customers loved that coon they brought her and that if they got another one, she would give them a half-dollar for it. The moral of Thurston’s story, I guess, is “A fox by any other name would taste as sweet.”

Thurston passed away recently and we miss him on the city council. He was a responsible, very wise citizen who had a wonderful childhood. He was also a great storyteller.